Building on the South Park Street economic development hub

As an urban planner by training and heart, Ruben Anthony knows development is a good thing. But not all development is created equal.

ruben anthony in the middle of graphic buildings being madeAs an urban planner by training and heart, Ruben Anthony knows development is a good thing. But not all development is created equal. For most economic development planning, African Americans, Latinos and poor people are on the outside looking in, says Anthony, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison.

“We’re not the ones creating the vision. We’re not the ones included in the deals,” says Anthony, who has a doctorate in urban planning. “We’re not the ones that benefit.”

That’s what Anthony plans to change with a proposed economic development business hub along Madison’s South Park Street corridor, which got a $2 million investment in Dane County Executive Joe Parisi’s 2021 budget. Anthony’s vision is a mix of incubator, retail and executive space for racial minority-owned businesses; banks or real estate agencies investing in disenfranchised communities; entrepreneurial startup and business development services, such as the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corp. and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation’s UpStart; and affordable housing and condominiums owned by the people who live and work there. It has to be big, it has to be visible, and it has to serve, first and foremost, the people of south Madison.

“Gentrification that doesn’t take into consideration the folks who are currently in that neighborhood is bad,” says Anthony, who grew up in the New York area. Now when he visits Harlem, he sees “nothing but white people.” The building his aunt lived in is a doctor’s office. Families he knew are long gone, priced out. In Madison, the East Washington Avenue corridor has seen significant investment “but I don’t see any Black investment there,” he says. “We want people to know that this is for the south Madison community. We don’t want to displace, we want to include.”

Anthony says the south side is one of Madison’s only “African American enclaves,” a place where “we can drive around the community and see ourselves.” There’s Fountain of Life Covenant and Mt. Zion Baptist churches. The YWCA is headed by Vanessa McDowell and Madison College (including the Goodman South Campus) is headed by Jack E. Daniels III. There’s even some Black homeownership — a rarity in Dane County. Across the country, 44% of African Americans own homes. But in Wisconsin that percentage drops to 23%, third worst in the nation. In Dane County, it’s an abysmal 10%. South Madison is home to generations of Black families, but historically most have been locked out of the generational wealth required to start businesses, buy homes or send kids to college.

The Urban League launched a $5 million homeownership program in August 2020 to purchase and renovate 16 south Madison homes and sell them to Black families with no down payments and interest-only loans for seven years. The Urban League also pushed back hard on SSM Health when it announced it was demolishing the Pick ’n Save to build its new clinic, potentially exacerbating Park Street’s food desert, and it worked. Now SSM Health’s $75 million project will include 2.5% to 5% businesses owned by racial minorities, women, veterans and those with disabilities. The project also includes a mentor-protégé program to train 10 individuals or companies in the building trades. The adjacent city-owned site will be developed to include a 24,000-square-foot space for Latino-owned Luna’s Groceries and 150 apartment units. And the proposed developer, Brandon Rule, is Black.

South Park’s economic development hub is inspired by the Sherman Phoenix project in Milwaukee, but Anthony hopes Madison will put its own spin on it, building on the south side’s strengths without shutting out its people. The county’s investment is a critical step forward, but Anthony says the winning formula is a mix of public and private investment and community buy-in.

“We talk about Black Lives Matter; everybody’s putting out great talking points,” Anthony says. “If you really want to pursue economic justice, work with us. Invest right now. Bring your innovative ideas, help mentor protégés. Help us pull this off.”

Maggie Ginsberg is an associate editor at Madison Magazine.Magazine footer that says "Like this article, get so much more by subscribing"